Cleaning up Hanford: Much progress, a lot left to do

Reflecting on five years with the Nuclear Waste Program

This is the last week on the job for our agency’s Nuclear Waste Program Manager Alex Smith. Before Smith heads off to her next adventure, however, she reflected on her last five years heading the Nuclear Waste Program, and offered some advice and wisdom for the next person to lead our team regulating cleanup of the Hanford Site.

On the job

woman smiles in front of camera, plain wall background

Alex Smith

What attracted you to this obviously difficult job?

I was interested in the Hanford job because it involved different parties at different levels of government with different interests and legal authorities; a wide variety of stakeholders; and appeared complicated and very challenging.

While serving in the Washington Attorney General’s Office, I’d worked on many complex cleanup sites and really liked trying to solve complex challenges. I knew Hanford was particularly complex, but didn’t fully appreciate just how complex until I’d been in this job for several years. I was also interested in seeing if I could be part of progressing meaningful cleanup at one of the country’s most contaminated sites

How is Hanford different from what you expected?

I’m not sure the basic issues involved in Hanford cleanup were all that different than I anticipated, but everything about Hanford was just so much bigger and more complex than I expected. For example, I had no idea of how many employees the U.S. Department of Energy (Energy), its contractors and subcontractors have and how many hard working people go out to the site every day.

I also had no idea how many waste sites there are and how each site and waste management unit has complexities and layers of history that make all the work even more detailed and complex than your typical Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) facility or Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, or Superfund) cleanup. (The two major federal laws governing toxic waste cleanup.) I also did not fully appreciate the complexity around the state’s, the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s and the U.S. Department of Energy’s different jurisdictions over aspects of the cleanup, and how complicated it is at times to reconcile them.

On our successes 

What have been our agency’s greatest achievements to date at Hanford?

Woman holding a brown and white dog

Alex Smith and one of her dogs, Hannah. 

To my mind, our greatest achievements came when we pushed hard for things that required a short-term influx of additional funding, but that ultimately accelerated cleanup and saved costs over the long term.

Examples of this include the “big dig” to remove the source of hexavalent chromium in soil; and pushing for construction of the 200 West pump and treat facility. I also believe our agency’s steadfast commitment to environmental compliance, with support of stakeholders, has helped drive cleanup.

How about in the five years you’ve been here?

In my time with the Nuclear Waste Program, the team has done a remarkable job permitting complex, first-of-a-kind waste treatment facilities; coming up with innovative ways to streamline cleanup and/or the paperwork associated with cleanup; and responding to emergency events like the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant (PUREX) Tunnel 1 collapse. Our team regularly goes above and beyond to move regulatory compliance and cleanup forward at Hanford, but they rarely get the credit they deserve for the hard work they do.

On the challenges ahead

Woman gesturing with hands on left, man sits on right

Alex Smith speaking about Hanford before stakeholders. 

What are the biggest remaining challenges?

One of the biggest remaining challenges is how tank waste will be treated and disposed of. Currently, there is no agreed-upon path for pretreatment and treatment of Hanford’s 54 million gallons of high-level tank waste.

Plans that were in place for Energy to begin pretreating and treating high-level tank waste in the early 2030s are now up in the air, as Energy re-assesses the tank waste mission. In addition, the federal government has not fulfilled its obligation to site and construct a disposal facility (a deep geologic repository) for treated high-level waste.

At the root of remaining challenges at Hanford, and many of the past challenges, is less than adequate funding. Rarely does Energy get the funding it needs to meet its Tri-Party Agreement (the legal agreement that governs the cleanup) and federal court-ordered obligations for any given year. This requires Energy to reach out to our agency and the EPA to move out deadlines for work that Energy considers lower priority.

As costs to simply maintain the Hanford Site in a safe condition increase every year, those costs will eventually eclipse the current annual Hanford budget. This will mean active cleanup will cease, current facilities may not be able to operate, and needed facilities may not be constructed and start operating. Keeping Hanford funding a priority in the minds of Congress is critical, and additional sources of funding should be identified to ensure the federal government lives up to its moral and legal obligation to clean up the legacy of nuclear weapons production in Washington State.

On advice to your successor 

What will you say to your successor about Ecology’s role in the Hanford cleanup, especially regarding the NWP staff’s work to keep it on track?

sign on right reads Washington Department of Ecology, building in left background

Our Nuclear Waste Program office. 

More than ever, our regulatory role is critically important at Hanford. As the facilities that store waste and in which hazardous and mixed waste are managed age well past their design lives, they pose a greater risk of failure. Compliance with laws we implement, like RCRA, ensures safeguards are in place to identify where and when facilities could fail, and to have plans in place for how to respond if a failure happens, to minimize the harm caused by that failure.

Yet, compliance with these regulatory requirements takes money, sometimes money Energy wants to use for other purposes. Energy, and others, may pressure our agency to allow them to do less than the law requires. It is more important than ever for us to do our job to minimize the risks posed by the high volume of hazardous and mixed waste stored and managed on the Hanford Site.

On final thoughts 

Any parting words of wisdom to the staff, the agency or the regional public?

Do all you can to keep funding coming to Hanford. It’s important to keep Hanford in the public consciousness and a priority for Congress and our federal government to invest funding and all other necessary resources into it.

Learn more about Hanford

Read about the history and current cleanup efforts of the Hanford Site on our nuclear waste pages.